If Suspiria and The Stendhal Syndrome were accurate representations of his filmography, Italian horror master Dario Argento may have the most lopsided strengths and weaknesses of any director I’ve experienced: his color schemes, use of music, and camera work are wildly inventive and appropriate, but his screenwriting and casting leaves much to be desired. Opera reinforces this theory to a T. Horrifying moments abound, including some truly brilliant POV shots—our young girl stands immobilized, needles taped to her eyes, as we see the torture of unsuspecting supporting characters through her obstructed, terrified blinks. Vibrant reds enforce the lingering, never-ceasing dread, and the use of rock & roll during the gruesome dissections (murders) is a lovely contrast to the high-pitched, operatic crooning that often follows our heroine (Betty) as she wanders the streets and random passages. Argento has no fear with the camera, and it’s reflected in the bazillion lenses, angles, and techniques he tosses into the brew. It may not always be coherent, or the very best choice for every given moment, but it’s always fascinating and rarely even borders on clumsy.
A hybrid of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (the setting and primary infatuation) and your typical pick-‘em-off-one-by-one horror flick, Opera takes place in a cranky old opera house, where an understudy winds up in the lead role…and at the mercy of a psychopath who enjoys toying with her mind, tying her up randomly, and eliminating her comrades or associates in her presence. Argento seems attracted by the frightened, yet increasingly mentally tough, young girl in an intimidating environment, and he captures that environment so well that it’s hard not to feel for Betty (our heroine), even if her, er, work leaves something to be desired.
Though the opera is theoretically the ideal setting for Argento’s over-the-top dialogue and hammy acting, it doesn’t really change the fact that both are dreadful. It’s a good thing that the mood is spectacular, because the poor script and performances would drag most pictures directly into the muck. Maybe it’s better in Italian—if a version exists; what I’ve read seems a bit hazy on the topic—…but I doubt it. Argento hasn’t shown any knack for conveying emotions verbally with any modicum of smoothness, and it’s unlikely he’ll realize it anytime soon as I plow myself through his filmography. However, we’re accustomed to cheap dialogue and hokey overemphasizing from our stars: not every horror flick can be The Shining or Dawn of the Dead. And, considering how few in this traditionally tepid genre rise above “boo!” scares, and genuinely get under our skin, I can easily give Opera a strong recommendation despite its flaws. It may not transcend the genre, but it takes us back to the roots of what made cinema ‘motion pictures’—a never-resting camera, freaky music, and directorial spunk.